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Cornett, Stitt clash over negative ads

Republican gubernatorial candidates Mick Cornett and Kevin Stitt clashed angrily Wednesday night over the negative ads in the runoff race, with each claiming in a televised debate that he was the victim of unfair attacks.

Cornett, the former mayor of Oklahoma City, defended his record as a conservative and then spoke directly to Stitt, asking, “Where have you been over the last 14 years? You haven’t been out on the front lines fighting for conservative principles.”

Stitt, the founder of a mortgage company based in the Tulsa area, said, “I’ll tell you exactly where I’ve been. I’ve been in the private sector in the real world creating jobs. I haven’t been cashing a government check.”

The exchange stood out not only for its confrontational tone, which has been absent in their previous joint appearances, but for its distillation of the contest. Cornett, who served 14 years as mayor, is running on the progress made in Oklahoma City during his tenure, while Stitt is hoping to convince voters that the state needs a businessman who has never been in government.

The debate, conducted at KOCO in Oklahoma City, was carried live on that station and on stations in Tulsa and Lawton.

The runoff elections are on Aug. 28.

Much of the hour was spent covering topics that the candidates have addressed for many months, including education funding, Medicaid expansion, business recruiting and criminal justice reform.

Cornett, 60, and Stitt, 45, provided their stock answers, with the biggest difference between them again coming on the question of the tax package approved this year to fund a teacher pay raise. Cornett said he is glad the governor signed the bill, while Stitt said he would not have done so.

The questions about the negative ads came in the second half of the debate, and panelists dug into the motives, the styles and the effects of the ads.

One panelist asked what message the ads sent to children.

“Well obviously that politics is a hands-on brutal sport,” Cornett said.

“But I think the children should put themselves in my position when my record, 40 years in the public eye, was brutally attacked and miscommunicated, my record as a conservative challenged and distorted. You know, you have to defend yourself.

“In political terms, if somebody comes after you, you better hit ‘em back twice as hard.”

Stitt said the message was “a pretty bad one when they use profanity to use somebody’s name,” a reference to the Cornett ads that feature people saying “bull stitt.”

Regarding that term, Cornett said, “It’s showing that all of these allegations against me just plain aren’t true .. We had to stand up in the strongest of terms and defend ourselves.”

Stitt said “vulgarity, using a cuss word and a play on somebody’s last name is just the lowest of lows. But it’s just typical. When politicians are down, they go to personal attacks.”

Stitt’s ad accuses of Cornett of not supporting President Donald Trump and his immigration policies. The ad states that Cornett defended sanctuary cities, ones in which local law enforcement won’t help federal officials enforce immigration law.

The ad shows Cornett declining in a televised interview to endorse Trump for president a few weeks before the election. It also quotes him as saying that a border wall wasn’t going to solve illegal immigration. Cornett made the comment in an interview with USA Today.

Ads being aired by Cornett and an outside group supporting him cite the banking violations, including fraud, that led to fines for Stitt's company in three states and the loss of the company license in Georgia. The violations occurred in 2008, and Stitt’s company was only recently allowed back into Georgia. The ads also say Stitt’s company accepted federal bailout money during the financial crisis, an assertion denied by the company, former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn and the head of the state’s banking association.

Stitt argued Wednesday that his ads focused on policy differences while Cornett’s were personal attacks.

“Oklahomans know the difference between a policy and someone making fun of someone’s last name,” Stitt said.

Cornett said, “Well you better have thicker skin than that if you want to be governor.”

The debate on Wednesday was the second of two held this month. The two are scheduled to appear at a forum on Friday held by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association and to speak on Saturday to the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Drew Edmondson is scheduled to appear at both of those events.

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Chris Casteel

Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›